Ghana Update: Working with Youth

Whoever said kids are the future, I would have to agree with them!

Life in Ghana, working everyday in a youth-centered environment, has changed my perspective on the whole demographic. Being the youngest of three kids I had never really gotten the chance to act as an influence to anyone younger. My previous position as YCI’s Program Assistant allowed me to wet my feet a bit with working with prospective volunteers; however, working in Ghana has brought a whole new set of challenges.


Leigh conducting a workshop

Working directly as a workshop facilitator in schools, youth groups and churches has been a different ball game all together. Inquisitive would be an understatement. When speaking about issues, many youth in Ghana are new to discussions that allow for many questions, concerns, and sharing etc. No question is too bold…believe me. But the energy in the workshops is great. I’ve grown confident speaking to my peers as they have welcomed me with open arms and attentive minds. I have also gotten quite used to the initial giggles that occur when I first begin speaking. Who knew I have a funny accent?


Next month we will be implementing a program on Sexual Reproductive Health for girls. Although I have enjoyed substance abuse and entrepreneurship, the upcoming workshops will lean more to my strengths. I focused on Gender and Development in my undergrad, and have always wanted to work directly with girls and women as a group. From my knowledge thus far, SRH is quite a taboo topic. I hope to break down those walls and create an open environment with the intention of giving these young women accurate knowledge and also a voice.  Subjects such as birth control, safe sex, STIs and abortion will be the focus of our workshops as many of these things are not covered in curriculum in schools. Marlee (another YCI volunteer) and I got a chance to speak to a few of the students at Universal High School after a previous workshop and the girls informed us of how most young women get their knowledge about these topics – word of mouth from friends. In addition, much of the information that is being passed along is grossly inaccurate. Many young women seem to be uneasy speaking to adults, doctors or teachers about SRH; therefore, assumptions are made, which can be dangerous. I am very curious about the reaction we will get on this topic.

– Leigh Matassa, Youth Ambassador, Ghana 2013


IYIP Blog: Meet Ziredi, Gender Equality Team Member

Meet Ziredi, a driving force in the ZANGOC Gender Equality Team.

YCI’s long-time partner in Zanzibar, the Zanzibar NGO Cluster for HIV/AIDS (ZANGOC), has been working to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS in Zanzibar’s communities since 1996.  Overseeing and coordinating the work of 45 community-based and faith-based organizations across the archipelago as well as providing testing and counseling services to the community, no single civil society organization has done as much as ZANGOC to fight against the epidemic on the islands.  However, one glaring gap has existed at ZANGOC for years: no clear strategy on gender issues in their programming, including no plans to address gender-specific barriers related to testing and treatment among female community members and a lack of women in major leadership positions at ZANGOC.

Ziredi Abdul Karim Msanik has sought to remedy this issue. Last year, the 25-year-old member of ZANGOC’s Executive Committee teamed up with YCI to launch ZANGOC’s Gender Equality Team (GET).  The primary goal of the team when it was established was to ‘mainstream’ gender into all of ZANGOC’s members’ activities, making gender considerations a central component in the planning and implementing of all of the activities ZANGOC and its members carry out in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

When asked about the partnership with YCI, Ziredi is quick to comment that “YCI has really helped ZANGOC”, citing examples of gender projects which the two organizations have championed together, but also more general capacity-building efforts among ZANGOC’s member organizations.  As for her own development, she adds, “YCI has built me up to who I am today…being a leader”.

And a leader she is, indeed.  This year alone, with YCI’s support, Ziredi has carried out a gender audit of ZANGOC’s member organizations. In order to identify the specific needs of each NGO, she organized an intensive five-day gender mainstreaming training for GET’s members and partners, and has overseen the development of ZANGOC’s new Gender Policy, presently being reviewed by the Executive Committee.

Ziredi hard at work in the ZANGIC office in Zanzibar.

Following her studies in law at Zanzibar University, Ziredi says that she hope to “use [her] skills to advocate for gender issues [and] human rights issues…Even though the situation is not that easy, I believe that it will reach a time when Zanzibar will change when it comes to gender issues.  We will see gender issues as the main priority.”

-Ben Verboom, Health Policy Officer, CIDA International Youth Internship Program, Tanzania 2012

IYIP Blog: A Long Way From Where I Started

Camaro and the Gender Committee members at the Ghana YMCA.

Seven months sure goes by quickly.  My internship has come to an end and I’ve come a long way from when I first arrived: unsure of where I was going to start with my mandate, the new intern trying to find my way in this new environment.

My first day of work a male co-worker came into my office and said to me “Just so you know, I don’t believe in all this gender stuff”.  Well then, it’s going to be a long seven months, I thought to myself.  I knew that doing gender equality work in a male dominated society wouldn’t be easy, and I certainly encountered some challenges.  During my first big gender workshop the discussion got very heated around the notion that men and women are not meant to be equal because the bible says so.  During my time in Ghana, I have found myself in many a frustrating conversation about gender.

But I appreciated those moments because they challenged me to find new ways of relating gender equality to the context I was working in; and if my work caused people to think about gender equality in ways that they didn’t before, I consider myself successful.  The upside to those challenges is that they made the pleasant surprises even better.  When people really seemed to “get” it, was when I felt most rewarded for my work.

The other most rewarding part of my mandate has been working with a gender committee made up of YMCA members from around Ghana.  The group of women will continue working as advocates for women in the Ghana YMCA and towards implementation of the gender equality policy.  During our last meeting, where I was supposed to be making sure they were equipped with the skills they need to continue the work, I was the one learning from their experience and knowledge.

Although interns have been driving gender work with the Ghana YMCA for the past two years, there is no shortage of well-informed, passionate and capable women ready to make sure the organization meets it’s gender equality goals; and I feel privileged to have worked with and learned from these women.  At the end of my mandate, I can say that not only have I made progress in terms of my mandate, but I found a home in Ghana and a family at the Ghana YMCA.

– Camaro West, Gender Advisor, CIDA International Youth Internship Program, Ghana 2012

IYIP Blog: Election Promises and Women’s Realities in Ghana

Recently our two CIDA IYIPs in Ghana, Camaro West and Devin Woods collaborated on a video project. This video is about Election Promises and Women’s Realities in Ghana (hence the title). It was also featured in a recent blog post by  Camaro for Girls Globe, which can read by clicking HERE.



IYIP Blog: 65 Shades of Entrepreneurship & Counting

Stabroek market, the largest in Georgetown, Guyana

Two months have gone by so far here in Guyana but it feels like just yesterday I was stepping off the plane at Cheddi Jagan International Airport in Georgetown.  Excited, nervous, grateful, scared; all of the above were the emotions going through my mind and body. It was during my first international experience in Brazil I was told to “expect the unexpected” and those were the words I kept telling myself over and over again. Well, two months have gone by and I continue to expect the unexpected. Since landing here in Georgetown I have learned a few life lessons, made some amazing friends and adapted to the Guyanese culture.

The organization that I am an intern with is Youth Challenge Guyana (YCG) a partner organization to Youth Challenge International (YCI).  Youth Challenge Guyana was founded in 1988 by a group of Canadian volunteers and sponsors with the intent to start a field project in Guyana. 24 years later, YCG is continuing its work by encouraging youth participation in challenging and worthwhile community service projects ranging from health, literacy, environmental research, community infrastructure and HIV/AIDS/STI education through the following Programmes & Projects:

  • The Health Programme and HIV/AID Project
  • The Education Programme and The National Volunteer Teachers Project
  • Life Skills & Livelihood Programme and the Youth Employability/ Leadership Project

As the Women’s Entrepreneurship Program Coordinator my project falls under the Life Skills & Livelihood Programme. This project originally began in January with the goal of developing sustainable businesses by providing knowledge, skills and support for 50 female entrepreneurs. Through various workshops, networking events, monthly meetings and conferences, recruitment to the project has risen to over 65 female entrepreneurs. The women entrepreneurs, a part from these meetings, workshops and networking events, have benefitted from the support of one another and the development of small business and entrepreneurship sectors in Guyana. Many of the women work together as partners, support and promote each other’s business and learn from each other.

Created from this network was a support group called WENET (Women’s Entrepreneurship Network), where all the women who are part of the project can come together, get ideas and advice while discussing their challenges. This network is the core of the entire project; women use one another as mentors and strengthen the group through increased participation levels while attracting new members. These meetings are where all the creative juices flow; many of the women in the group gain encouragement from their peers and obtain business advice.  The mentorship aspect of these meetings between the women plays an important role in the success of the female entrepreneurs, their businesses and WENET.

The famous Seawall

In May 2011 when the project was implemented there were a total of 52 members, since then there have been 18 new female entrepreneurs join the program! All of these women have remarkable businesses all ranging from different stages of development.

The Businesses that are a part of WENET Include:

  • Cake Decorating Business
  • Salon (Hair, Manicures, Pedicures)
  • Bar/Restaurant/Snackette/Deli
  • Day Care/Babysitting
  • Retail Store/ Boutique (Clothes, Shoes, Wedding Dresses, Accessories)
  • Edible Arrangements
  • Printing/Publishing
  • Mobile Confectionary Stand (toys, snacks, poultry, food)
  • Fashion Design
  • Recording Studio
  • Grocery & Variety Stores
  • Food Vending
  • Animal Care
  • Catering

I have spent the past 6 weeks in and out of the office at Youth Challenge Guyana meeting with these women as part of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Project. So far I have met with around 35 amazing women. I have visited their businesses, while others have come into the Youth Challenge Office or met me at local cafes and restaurants. During our meetings I have a one-on-one discussion, where I ask about their business, a history of their business and get to know them on a personal level. Sometimes I will meet with 5 or 6 women a day for around an hour or an hour and half; the most rewarding part of my day is leaving these one-on-ones with a sense of fulfillment and gratification. They may think that they are learning from me, however, they have no clue the amount of knowledge, independence and mentorship I am acquiring from them, through the development of their businesses and support they are providing to their families.

Some of the women I have met with are single mothers, working full-time jobs and running successful businesses on the side to provide support for their families (makes me regret all the complaining I did about working a side job during my studies at college). All of these women have begun to influence me in different ways; the strange thing is that I am here to help provide them and their network with support, however, after talking to some of these women they prove to be the most successful women I know.

Just yesterday I met with a woman who is 65 year old retired nurse from St. Vincent, now working in her spare time as a seamstress teaching sewing lessons. When asking about her long-term goal for her business she responded with “ I have set 3 goals in my life, the first to be a nurse, the second was to open my own successful sewing business, the third is to open sewing schools for underprivileged children in 3 regions of Guyana, this will help them open there own businesses.” She has already accomplished the first 2 goals in her life and is currently working on the third. It is hearing stories and goals such as these during my one-on-ones with the women that make me grateful to be a part of this amazing project and be able to meet such influential women. The goals and stories I hear from the women also apply to the concept of taking things a day at the time, achievement of ones goals does not come overnight it takes time and I believe one day at a time.

A pond in a national park in Guyana

As I sit here and reflect on the past two months I have spent in Georgetown, I think about the challenges I have faced with travelling abroad and adapting to a new lifestyle and a new culture. I also reflect on the challenges my expats friends have experienced during their time here in Georgetown as well. The one conclusion I have been able to draw from these experiences is that throughout life you will always be tested and it comes down to what you make of these tests. You can sit back and allow challenges to affect you negatively and deter you from continuing on or you can take the proactive step forward and overcome that challenge. I look at the women in the network and see the obstacles that they are faced with every day whether it is with their businesses, their families and life in general and let me tell you it doesn’t stop them or set them back. This lesson is one I have learned early on during my internship and is attributed to the amazing women of WENET and friends that I made so far. I am excited to see the challenges and lessons to be learned over the next 5 months here in Georgetown.

Kendra BorutskiWomen’s Entrepreneurship Program Officer, CIDA International Youth Internship Program, Guyana 2012

IYIP BLOG: Gender Reflections of a Canadian Man in Zanzibar

Recently, I attended an intensive, five-day gender equality workshop, hosted by ZANGOC and attended by members of their Gender Equality Team.  I had done a little bit of work on gender-related issues during my four years at the University of Toronto, and the struggle for gender equality is an issue of particular interest and passion for me.

Participants celebrate with their certificates of participation after five long days in the ZANGOC Gender Training Workshop.

I must admit, I underestimated the degree of difference between the discourse around gender that I’m used to in Canada and the one in which I was immersed during the first day of the workshop in Zanzibar less than two weeks after arriving in the country.  Perspectives that I have taken for granted as (near) universal were openly challenged and debated (mostly, but not exclusively, by men) during the workshop: the importance of equal opportunity employment between genders, the indisputability of women’s basic sexual and reproductive rights, and the appropriateness of female participation in federal politics.

Day-to-day reflections, observations, and interactions with people in town have also frequently activated my ‘Gender RADAR’ (let’s call it ‘GenDar’): seeing women and men line up separately at the bank, trying to make sense of the variety of justifications offered to explain why women are barred from Zanzibar’s mosques, feeling unsure about when and how—and even if—I can or should interact with local women at work and in town.  Occasionally I find myself resisting the temptation to vehemently object to various perceived manifestations of gender inequality—social, institutional, or otherwise—most of which would no doubt elicit reactions ranging from disapproval to outrage among my (mostly liberal-minded) social circle in Toronto, but in Zanzibar are generally accepted as the norm.

Members of ZANGOC’s Gender Equality Team engage in discussion during ZANGOC’s Gender Training Workshop.

My point here is not to criticize or challenge the prevailing perspectives on, and attitudes toward, gender in Zanzibar.  After spending fewer than six weeks here, that’s far from my place.  Rather, I feel inclined to turn inward and reflect on some of the questions around gender that this experience has prompted.  Is this fight for gender equality really a global phenomenon rooted in universal human rights?  Or is it just another example of the imposition of liberal Western values by the global upper class on the world’s majority?  At what point is the importance of cultural sensitivity eclipsed by the ethical imperative of defending the agency and well-being of women?  It seems obvious to me that when it comes to such conspicuous demonstrations of injustice as politically-motivated rape or forced sterilization of women (neither of which I’ve heard of in Zanzibar, I should add), any worries about the preservation of tradition or culture become secondary to the protection of women’s dignity, health and well-being.  But when the conversation shifts to traditional household and community gender roles (where women primarily fulfill child-care and domestic functions while men take on professional, commercial and political responsibilities), which are commonly defended on religious or cultural grounds (often by a majority of both men and women), the discussion becomes blurred and markedly more difficult.

Finding my place in this discussion, especially in Zanzibar, is my greatest challenge.  As a straight, white, Canadian-born man, my perspective is shaped, and both the authority and validity of my opinions limited, by my background and identity.  I’m not going to pretend to understand the intricacies and nuances of gender dynamics here (it’s hard enough in Canada) or the ways in which they are influenced and reinforced by the population’s widespread adherence to Islamic doctrine.  What I can do is to continue to be as open-minded as possible, to continue to learn, and to recognize and embrace my position (mostly) as an observer and as a student of the culture.  I’m excited about the coming months; I relish the challenges that I’ll face and I’m eager for the lessons I’ll hopefully be able to garner through facing them.

Ben speaks about his experiences with gender as part of an activity during the ZANGOC Gender Training Workshop.

-Ben Verboom, Health Policy Officer, CIDA International Youth Internship Program, Tanzania 2012

Gender Equality Policy Development and Workshop With YES Ghana

As YCI Gender Innovators, Jenilee and I developed a Gender Equality Policy and Implementation Strategy for YES-Ghana over the past six weeks. As Jenilee described in her earlier blog post, we had an incredible experience meeting with youth advocates who are participants in YES-Ghana’s program on Youth and Good Oil Governance. In our discussions with them, we learned about various gender-related issues that arose during past program activities as well as the challenges they face addressing gender issues in their work as youth advocates.

Meredith with the Youth Advocates in Axim.

The feedback from our consultations with the youth advocates and YES-Ghana staff provided us with insight important to the development of the Gender Equality Policy. We used the input from the youth to shape the priorities of the policy and the strategies for the policy’s implementation.

During the last week of our placement at YES-Ghana, Jenilee and I developed a Gender Equality Policy Launch and Training Workshop for YES-Ghana staff that we facilitated on March 8th, coinciding with International Women’s Day and also our last day of work at YES-Ghana. The goal of the workshop was to equip staff with the tools they need to apply gender analysis and mainstreaming at YES-Ghana for the realization of their new Gender Equality Policy. 

Rhoda, Henrik, Fred, and Jenilee at the YES-Ghana Staff Gender Training

After reviewing some gender-related concepts and terms, Jenilee and I discussed how to apply gender analysis to the programmes at YES as well as how to mainstream gender in all of YES-Ghana’s work. At the end of the workshop, participants broke up into two groups and applied a gender perspective to components of YES-Ghana’s new “Voices of Youth” project. This current year-long project is centered around increasing youth participation in policy-making. One group discussed the project’s activity of creating a Youth Manifesto, a collection of youth policy proposals, and the other group discussed the project’s activity of training youth on community radio production, so that youth can reach out to their peers to collect input for the Youth Manifesto. Workshop participants quickly ran a gender analysis of each activity and discussed various gendered aspects, such as barriers and obstacles that could discourage young women’s participation in both activities.

Emelia, Katharina, and Enock at the YES-Ghana Staff Gender Training.

Discussing ways to incorporate gender into YES-Ghana’s future activities at the workshop was such a positive end to our work at YES-Ghana, as Jenilee and myself could see how the policy we developed will fit not only institutionally at YES-Ghana but also with the practical work they carry out on a day-to-day basis.

Jenilee and Meredith in front of the YES Ghana office in East Legon.

– Meredith Evans, Youth Innovator, Ghana 2012

YCI is currently recruiting for an Innovator to work with YES Ghana starting in May. The deadline to apply is March 23rd. Click HERE for the complete posting.